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Why Movies Ignore Women

Female lead and even secondary roles are few, and when they are included, it’s often for the sake of “eye candy.” Keira Knightly’s character dons a very “practical” outfit when she goes to war and faces knives, swords and all manner of medieval mayhem in King Arthur.

Photo ©Touchstone Pictures

You don’t have to see a lot of movies to recognize that women take a back seat at the cinema—and I’m not talking about the audience. As a critic of over two decades I can attest that on the big screen females are far less likely to play a protagonist role compared to their male counterparts. This gender bias becomes even more apparent each year when I fill out my awards ballot for the Critics Choice Movie Awards. I often have to pick and choose between multiple great male performances for the Best Actor while I’m struggling to come up with five worthy selections for Best Actress. Please understand that this has nothing to do with women being inferior performers. Instead it is all about quantity. Men have far more opportunities in a given year to demonstrate their skills as a principal performer than do women.

“There are at least a dozen "supermen" for every Wonder Woman”

Need proof? Dr. Martha Lauzen, Ph. D. is the Executive Director at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. She has been studying the representation of women in the film industry and released her first report in 2002. Recently she released her third update that confirms the lack of females in cinema is a continuing trend.

Looking at the top 100 grossing films in 2013, Lauzen audited gender portrayals in a variety of areas. Not surprisingly only 15% of protagonists were female while about 30% of all other major and minor speaking characters were female. From her survey she also determined that female characters were less likely to play leadership roles or have an identifiable occupation.

Age discrepancies are also revealing—but hardly surprising. Of the female characters that were on the screen, the majority were in their 20s and 30s. In contrast men were, on average, over a decade older, with males over 40 accounting for over half of all male characters. Yes, it’s true. The grey haired mature male usually captures the heart of a much younger female in the movies.

As revealing as these observations are, perhaps the bigger question is “Why?” Why is the industry reluctant to create films that feature strong female lead roles? Or even powerful secondary roles?

Perhaps this is simply social conditioning. Our popular culture has featured male protagonists for literally centuries. Our action figures and heroes bear this out since “mass” culture has arrived. There are at least a dozen “supermen” for every Wonder Woman. When we do see a female lead role in a guns and bombs movie, she’s typically dressed in a ridiculously revealing costume that sends far stronger messages about “male fantasy” than about saving the universe. I find it especially comical when women are dressed in leather-strapped “armor” in medieval era films. Keira Knightley in King Arthur is a classic example.

Notable exceptions are The Hunger Games and the Twilight franchises, two series that demonstrate strong box office results with women front and center. However I would still readily argue that, in Twilight, Bella’s decision-making role is strongly influenced and directed by the dual male leads. It is carefully constructed to leave female audiences feeling like Bella is calling the shots, but the world in which these characters reside is very much male dominated.

Of course we have the legion of Disney princesses to thank for weighing the statistics a little more in the favor of females. Frozen hit the box office jackpot with not one but two female leads (although Anna is anything but an Einstein when she readily falls for the smooth talking bad guy) but from major awards perspective (we’re looking at you Oscar, along with the Golden Globes and Critics Choice) you can’t nominate an actress for a voice-only performance. So Frozen, Tangled, Brave and the many more animated girl-power movies score a point for the character but not the actress.

There have been recent and notable box office burners dominated by women but lately they are usually crass imitations of manly movies, for example Bridesmaids or The Heat. But as bad as that last example was, its star, Sandra Bullock, has proven she can wrangle big dollars into the box office in strong female led performances. Both Gravity and The Blind Side attracted audiences and awards for this seasoned actress.

In closing, may I suggest yet another couple of explanations: Do both men and women prefer stories with a strong male lead? Or, does the male in the couple typically select the evening’s entertainment? These are questions that I’m sure the marketing geniuses in Hollywood are considering on a regular basis. Hopefully, in the years ahead, we can look forward to seeing more capable women in significant roles.

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